Big Lean straddles the line between commercial and street [Article]
Toronto, ON – The air is hazy in an east end basement where Big Lean and his crew relax, reviewing the final cut of a video and tossing brotherly insults at each other as often as they ash the blunt. The 22-year-old rapper (who doesn’t smoke himself) is far from the loudest voice in the room, yet his soft spoken words hold great weight. Everyone there has known each other for as long as they’ve known Parma Court, the east end neighbourhood noted in the past for producing underground rappers Cat & Eyez, Blitz (R.I.P.) and Young Tony AKA Hush (OVO). And while Lean points out later that his circle has gotten smaller, these are the guys he wants around. For Big Lean, like many young men, his neighbourhood means a lot to him. And that’s why, after the 2006 murder of his close friend Blitz and wounding of Young Tony in a shoot out, Big Lean decided he was a voice Parma Court needed.
Big Lean came out of nowhere in 2010 when he dropped I’m Here Now. Featuring collaborations with Belly, Luu Breeze, Show Stephens and an unheard of 5 of 8 tracks produced by Grammy Winning producer Boi-1da, the EP was a big step for Lean.
“I wasn’t trying to rap,” explains Lean. “When Blitz died I started rapping to keep it going. I know Blitz took it serious so I wanted to be that guy. That’s when I decided to start rapping. And no one in Parma Court makes bad music, so I knew I had to come correct.”
Since then, he’s continued to grow as an artist and as a name worth knowing north of the border with the radio friendly “You Got It Good,” all over Flow 93.5. While he inherently gets the street vote, he’s also using his fresh young face and smooth, sincere delivery to appeal to a growing female demographic. Nowhere is this more obvious than on his new single “I Wanna Know.” With distinctly mainstream production (once again from Boi-1da), it’s a song about growth and survival, yet comes off tender and melodic. It’s this space, between street-wise lyrical content and smooth, radio friendly deliveries, that Lean occupies so comfortably. Check out the video, directed by Cazhhmere below.
In early October 2011, Big Lean dropped Do You Believe? (Hosted by DJ John J) and Something Gotta Give on the same day. Each project focuses on different sides of the game. Do You Believe? is a mixtape in the traditional sense, including dubs over songs like “B.M.F.” and recent collaborations with fellow Parma Court rapper R.O.Z. Something Gotta Give, on the other hand, is really a street album, featuring a range of original material showing the young MC’s growth into a more insightful, concept driven artist. The street album also features names like Sizzla, R.O.Z. and Young Tony AKA Hush.
Although Hush established himself in the early 2000’s as one of Toronto’s prolific story-tellers, he “quit” rapping years ago much to the disappointment of his loyal, underground fan base. Nowadays, Hush is often seen by Drake’s side and contributes to Drake’s creative processes. But Hush isn’t what you’d call an active rapper these days, except when it comes to Big Lean’s projects. This isn’t an accident. It speaks to the bond between Parma Court rappers, who see each other as the best there are and rarely reach too far outside their circle for collaborations.
“If you spent a week with Drake you wouldn’t want to be a rapper anymore,” says Hush during a reluctant interview. “It’s not as fun as people think. Sure, you might get rich, but I’d rather make $100,000 and be unknown than make a million and be a star…I rap wit Lean because I made him a promise years ago. Before I decided to quit rapping I promised him I’d rap on one track per project. But I’m not trying to rap.”
Well good thing for Parma Court, Big Lean is trying to rap. Just as with I’m Here Now, Boi-1da steps in for the majority of production on Something Gotta Give (which also includes notable contributions from Track Officialz and Talksikk) which has many outsiders wondering where that connection started.
“The first beat I ever rapped on was Boi-1da,” reveals Lean. “I was thinking about rapping, but I needed beats so I told them to call that guy that makes beats. Boi-1da came by and I bought three beats off him that same day. And back then, Boi-1da wasn’t really charging everyone for beats. But it started us off on the right foot and he’s been at my side ever since.”
Boi-1da is much like Hush in his low-key public persona, but makes no bones about his support for Big Lean. In 2010, Boi-1da did a rare cameo in Big Lean’s first official video “Lock Who.”
“What I like about Lean is how he puts the realness of his life in his music and does a good job at painting a picture so you see where he’s coming from,” says 1da.
Written by Jonathon “Bizz” Brown for HipHopCanada